Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

 

The Ashtray

 

 

This is how I write,” Chekhov answered Korolenko, reaching across Anna Vorovna’s lap and picking up a heavy crystal ashtray.  “If you want a story for your magazine, tomorrow you will have ‘The Ashtray.’”

Korolenko regarded Chekhov with his customary combination of bright-eyed joy and readily accessible anger. For him even light-hearted exchanges belied more serious concerns.  “Is it really that easy, Anton Pavlovich?” he asked.

A chuckling murmur circled the parlor like the sound of a small quick animal racing through high wet weeds.  To settle us, Anna Vorovna, our hostess, rapped on the little cherry wood table from which the ashtray had been removed.  She didn’t want to miss Chekhov’s reply. 

“I did not say it was easy, Vladimir Galaktionovich. I said it was how I write, that’s all.”

“Pah,” Korolenko spat. He had been a penal colonist in Siberia for many years and believed that literature must illustrate injustice in the world, or at least respond to the violence of power. “Ashtrays don’t tell tales, my friend. Life does.”

“By the way, what kind of ashtray is that?” interjected Boris Baikov, who could always be counted on to lose himself in the woods of any conversation and call out for help finding his way back.

Anna Vorovna said, “It is Dyatkovsky crystal, of course.  It came down to me from my grandfather Alexei Illych Medvedev.”

“And what more is there to say about it, Anton Pavlovitch?” Korolenko teased Chekhov. “Why should we wait for tomorrow?”

“You mean you want the story tonight?”

“Why not?  You’ve written hundreds.  What would it cost you to give us one now for free?”

Chekhov considered us a moment.  It was as though he were surveying a hospital ward, assessing what his various patients needed by way of treatment.  Ironically, he was the least healthy of anyone present.  Yalta’s air was good for him, but not good enough.  So one felt that besides being impudent, Korolenko’s challenge was inconsiderate. Nonetheless, Chekhov surely sensed how eager we were to hear him invent a story on the spot, even one hinging on an ashtray.  Wasn’t he, after all, the master of the banal?

By way of beginning, Chekhov commented that of course it was children, not adults, who determined the true meaning of things in this world, ascribing to them magical significance beyond reason, utility, or even intrinsic aesthetic appeal.  And so it was in the case of Anna Vorovna’s Dyatkovsky crystal ashtray, which she had kept near at hand all her life, although she did not, as we all knew, indulge in smoking even the thinnest rat tail of a cigar.  In fact, we might also have noticed that whenever we gathered in her gracious sitting room, this particular ashtray was never put in use. To reach it one would have to stretch across Anna Vorovna’s lap—as we had just seen him do—with manners more suitable to a boarding house than to the summer mansion of our distinguished and gracious hostess.

“Just think, my friends, an ashtray that is never used always placed at the elbow of a woman who never smokes,” Chekhov said. “I confess that it did catch my eye some time ago and made me wonder, perhaps just as Anna Vorovna wondered about it when she was a little girl.”

For Anna Vorovna’s maternal grandfather, Alexei Illych Medvedev, was a man of superabundant appetites, Chekhov said.  He was not a count or a prince, but he was rich, very rich—rich enough to hold a kind of court in his great house in Moscow and on his distant country estate bordering the Ukrainian steppe, not far from where Korolenko had grown up as a poor boy in Zhytomyr and where Chekhov himself had traveled to write one of his first successful stories, called simply “The Steppe.”

How Medvedev acquired his wealth and vast estate would be a story too long for an evening’s discussion.  For now, Chekhov said, he preferred to concentrate on the peculiar narrative of the Dyatkovsky crystal ashtray, which had, to his eye, an almost funerary aspect.

“Look carefully,” he said, raising the ashtray up from the nest of his lap, “and note its unusual depth. 

“It’s made for cigars,” Nikolai Cherty commented.  “I have one like it myself.”

“True,” Chekhov agreed.  “In fact, you could almost employ it as an ink pot, but then I don’t need any ink for this story, do I?” He furrowed his brow upward in such a way as to allow his pince nez glasses, which he had placed on the bridge of his nose to facilitate his scrutiny of the ashtray, to pop free and dangle down on the gold chain that was looped around the back of his high collar.

“The point is that not only was Medvedev a smoker but that he smoked almost continuously so that when Anna Vorovna was a girl with long golden plaits, she always saw her grandfather followed about by a servant who carried this ashtray on a silver salver.  Medvedev had made his fortune the hard way, you see, and did not want to drop a single fleck of ash on his fine rugs and sofas, nor did he want the class of men who had risen up the ladder of success with him to think that they were welcome to sully his premises by taking liberties that were commonplace in their barns, warehouses, and factories.  So the ostentation of devoting a manservant to catching his ashes, relighting his cigars, and giving him new ones was more than vanity. One needed a deep ashtray for the practical reason of encouraging his nouveau riche compatriots to join him in making use of it.”

Now I must say that one did not think of Anna Vorovna as anything less than the embodiment of refined riches—whether her grandfather had been a crafty freed serf or not—nor did one think of her with her prematurely gray hair enfolded in its customary chignon as at one time a thirteen-year-old girl with long golden plaits.  We all wondered, then, about the truth of Chekhov’s tale.  He told it as if Anna Vorovna had told it to him in exactly these words.  But would she confide to Chekhov the specifics of her grandfather’s puffery? One wanted to put it to Anna Vorovna, “Look, is he making this up?” If so, one couldn’t deduce it from her expression.  Anna Vorovna looked at Chekhov with inquisitive latitude, her alert, amused expression expectant but not judging.  He was her favorite, after all.  Had she been a few years younger, who knows, she might have had him as a lover.  She made exceptions for him all the time, one notable example being the presence of the fierce and talented but disreputable Korolenko. So one might assume that he’d feel free to twit her with facts that were not facts at all, or then again, he might know exactly whereof he spoke

I am no writer myself, but I do know that people sometimes unwittingly reveal things that add up to more than they intend to disclose, such things as what Chekhov now proceeded to relate.

As a girl, you see, Anna Vorovna found her grandfather fascinating and terrifying.  An energetic, loquacious man, he dominated the dinners and soirees he hosted with strong opinions on virtually everything.  One of his opinions, for example, was that the nobility’s decadence did more to undermine the tsar’s stature than either European revolutionary “influences” or Russia’s hardworking lesser classes. “When the tsar’s father emancipated the serfs, he bought their eternal love” he said. “My estates will never go to seed. Men like me make Russia strong. We pay fair wages for honest labor.  Count So-and-So and Prince Blah-blah are the ones whose rotten holdings invite socialist resentment.”

Then, after saying such things, Medvedev would raise his hairy-backed hand to flick the ash off his cigar and Andre, his manservant, would nimbly tiptoe forward to catch it in the deep throat of the Dyatkovsky crystal ashtray.

Clearly Medvedev must have been a bit of a scandal to the family he had spawned and enriched. And yet Anna Vorovna smiled with such pleasure at the image Chekhov evoked that we all thought that what he was saying certainly must be a matter of family history, if not History itself.

Chekhov intensified this impression by elaborating on one of Medvedev’s quirks. Whenever Anna Vorovna found herself in her grandfather’s immediate presence, Medvedev liked to draw her against his side and stroke her hair as he talked. Picture it this way: there Medvedev stood with a cigar in one hand and a child’s beautiful head in the other, the side of her face resting against the expanse of his great belly.  And Anna Vorovna learned a great deal during these moments for Medvedev did not spend all his time pontificating.  Even on a purely social occasion with gypsy guitars thrumming and wine glasses tinkling in his Moscow mansion or distant Ukrainian manor house, he might seize the opportunity to barter with a trader for a fresh supply of silks from Samarqand and crates of lapis lazuli from the busy markets of Bokhara.  In return he would offer furniture, finished jewelry (featuring Baltic amber), shot, gunpowder, and Berdan breech loading rifles.

Medvedev negotiated by changing the subject, apologizing for asking too much and laughing at his counterpart’s difficulties.  “Of course, you must pay back that loan to Gagarin,” he might say.  “I know you are desperate and in need of help.  Aren’t we all?  Isn’t that why I demand so much and offer so little?  Do you think that pleases me? Why, I was just telling Herskovitz the Pole . . .” And then he would recapitulate a sad tale about another trader neither he nor Herskovitz working together could save.  This trader’s name was Leonov, and pirates on the Caspian Sea not far from Krasnovodsk seized his principal ship and all its goods.  Medvedev then let this awful image of total catastrophe hang in the air, intimidating his interlocutor with the scope of his connections (Herskovitz was the richest man in Warsaw) and their inadequacy in the face of the world’s perils.   Nothing and no one could save a man—poor Leonov! —from the maws of fate if he didn’t make good deals quickly before he was robbed.

The next day, just after a fine breakfast of quail eggs, smoked salmon, biscuits and English tea, Anna Vorovna would rush to her grandfather’s study where he kept his books and maps.  What was there to learn about Samarqand?  Who lived in Krasnovodsk and why?  What pirates?

Chekhov smiled at Anna Vorovna, causing her to cover her mouth with a perfumed kerchief.  He was a handsome devil even when he was sick, so composed, piercing and yet gentle.  He might have been Anna Vorovna’s suitor at that moment although Olga Knipper, his wife, sat just three chairs away from him in our large conversational circle. (I would estimate that ten or twelve of us gathered at Anna Vorovna’s that night; Olga, as always, was the quietest, a great actress who only performed on the stage, never in the parlor.)

Old Medvedev, Chekhov continued, often said Anna was the quickest of his children and grandchildren because her mind paid no attention to her feet.  She could stand in one place and think in another with no sense of vertigo whatever.  He’d sit at his immense oak desk, wreathed in cigar smoke, and dote on her industry as she pored over history books and maps (how she loved maps!) with the same attention he paid to his estate accounts.  His pet name for Anna Vorovna annoyed her mother, Beatrice.  He called her Babushka, his little grandmother.  Why?  Because she was so wise and knew more at eight than most women at eighty.  When Medvedev laughed at jokes like this, cigar smoke would pour out of his lungs in successive puffs, causing Anna Vorovna to nickname him, in turn, her Big Steam Engine.  Not infrequently they would be diverted from their solitary investigations into harvests and geography to tell each other stories in which the Big Steam Engine took Babushka to far away places across the Urals and even across the Baltic Sea, for the Big Steam Engine could sail across the water just like a ship.

Anna Vorovna raised her eyebrows as Chekhov said these things.  Meanwhile poor Korolenko followed along with an expression of rueful joy.  Apparently some kind of literary method did inhere in the heavy crystal ashtray, for Chekhov had kidnapped all of us back into Anna Vorovna’s childhood and perhaps also into some unspoken, forgotten, but still magic dimension of our own childhoods.  He spoke confidently, endearingly.  The characteristic air of melancholy that permeated so much of his work was absent . . . so far, at least . . . and yet one knew, obviously, that Medvedev no longer lived and that Anna Vorovna therefore had lost, early in life, her first and greatest love.  This must be where the story would head, entailing a narrative role for the Dyatkovsky ashtray along the way.

And so it was.

Early one morning in 1882, a messenger came to Anna Vorovna’s parents’ house in Moscow with terrible news.  There had been a fire at Medvedev’s country estate.  The manor house had half burned to the ground.  Worse, Medvedev had perished in his bed, asphyxiated by smoke before he was incinerated by fire. 

Immediately Anna Vorovna’s mother and father assumed Medvedev had brought this tragedy on himself with his final cigar of the day.  The messenger, however, said there were suspicions that the fire had been set by a disgruntled trader, a villain who believed Medvedev had swindled him.

“I should think not!” Anna Vorovna’s mother said, defending her father’s honor.

“We’ll never know,” Anna Vorovna’s father said.

“Let’s go investigate,” Anna Vorovna proposed.  “We’ll show the world the truth!”

Anna Vorovna’s parents looked at her with dismissive indulgence, but Anna Vorovna persisted and over the course of the morning, just like her grandfather, she got her way.  Instead of having Medvedev’s remains brought to Moscow for burial, the family would go to the edge of the steppe and oversee the interment there.  (The truth is that almost no one in Moscow cared for Medvedev, while the workers on his estate all adored him.  Why shouldn’t he be buried among those he loved?)

So they boarded one train after another and in three days found themselves nestled in a coach and four bumping up the long larch-lined driveway leading to Medvedev’s manor house.  The peculiarity of this experience lay in the fact that along the approach nothing had changed.  Beyond the larch trees, the fields were pregnant with golden wheat and the blue skies retained their hypnotic calm. And then all tranquility was destroyed by the appalling image of the disaster that erupted before their eyes as they rolled through the great stone gate.  The mansion’s north wing was charred to a crisp and largely roofless.  Apparently a change in the wind on the night of the fire, combined with an interior brick wall, saved two thirds of the house, but not Medvedev’s bedroom suite directly above his library.

Even Anna Vorovna’s father joined the women in weeping at the sight.  Immediately several dozen servants and workers rushed out to greet them.  They also were weeping. Indeed, some of the women wailed as they re-experienced the shock and tragedy through the eyes of Medvedev’s daughter Beatrice and his little Babushka Anna.  The first thing Anna Vorovna thought, of course, was that with such a number of loyal human beings surrounding him, her grandfather could not have been the victim of arson.  How could any miscreant artfully negotiate the vast estate property without being noticed and then make his way through the gate and across the courtyard and into the house and up the stairs (where the fire obviously had begun) and back out again without stirring an alarm? 

In keeping with their new status as owners of Medvedev’s estate, Anna Vorovna’s mother and father realized that they must master themselves and offer comfort and reassurance to their recently orphaned employees.  One by one, they shook hands, embraced, and comforted each and every man and woman gathered out there in the front courtyard.  There were cooks, butlers, charwomen, maids, stable hands, blacksmiths, gardeners, foremen, field hands, and what-have-you.

Anna hated this experience the way little girls hate things, suddenly, fiercely, and willfully.  She had been caught off guard, which she hated, and overwhelmed, which she hated, and couldn’t manage the transposition of all the emotions her grandfather evoked in her when she visited the estate to the mass of trembling, shaking, bodies who were the only things still here that seemed to be alive.  Quickly she ran behind a garden wall into the cherry orchard overlooking the brook, and from there she climbed the stone steps to the patio that led to the library’s French doors, through which she passed.  Her grandfather’s great desk, his globe, his books and map cases all were covered with soot, but they had not caught on fire.  The fire, Anna Vorovna could see, looking directly up through a lake-shaped hole in the ceiling, had begun on the second floor in Medvedev’s sleeping quarters.  In fact, she could see the sky from the ground floor library through that hole because the roof above Medvedev’s sleeping quarters had burned away.

She ran out into the hall, up the stairwell and across a wide beam that led to the threshold of Medvedev’s bedroom.  Her mother would have fainted if she’d seen Anna Vorovna do this.  But Anna Vorovna didn’t hesitate.  She had no fear of fire-eaten flooring planks as long as she could trace a path across the supporting beam work.  The only thing that stopped her, for a moment, at least, was the wild blackness of the suite once she was inside it.  Here, good lord, all that remained was something like an open air coal mine, the remnants of an inferno, wood that had puckered like crocodile skin into seared plaids of carbonized framework, furniture fragments, incinerated moldings and gruesome landscapes of ash.

For one terrifying moment, as she studied the blacker than black shadow cast upon the space where once upon a time her grandfather had lain in his great bed, it occurred to Anna Vorovna that she was not only in the presence of a death scene but also, possibly, in the presence of her grandfather’s charred body. What if it still lay there?

Fortunately, Anna Vorovna was spared the cruel experience of confronting her beloved grandfather’s mortal residue.  The body had been removed as soon as the heat abated.  The men and women in the courtyard had seen to that.

Yet Anna Vorovna still stood staring at the bedstead’s former resting place, knowing her grandfather had died right there, and seeing in the rubble . . . what was that?  It glinted just a little.  Very carefully, Anna Vorovna slid along the joist work above the library twenty feet below.  She didn’t want to fall.  She didn’t even want to lose her balance and have to grab something that would soil her hands –or possibly break off in her hands, and then what?  When she reached the ashtray and pulled it out of the rubble, she found it in perfect condition except for the soot that she easily wiped off with the inner hem of her long skirt.

Anna Vorovna returned to the front courtyard where her parents were still consoling the staff and being consoled in turn.  No one had his right wits about him.  Her father didn’t know what to say in response to the question put to him time and time again, “What will happen?”  (He was a city man, a lawyer, not a farmer or sportsman.  What would he do with a huge estate on the edge of the steppe?)  And no one paid any attention to her mother’s repeated assertion, “Everything will be all right.”  Would it?  How could it be?  Medvedev was gone!

Anna Vorovna kept the ashtray concealed under her jacket. As soon as she could, she tucked it away in her luggage.  For years, long after her parents sold the estate, she kept it hidden.  In fact, Chekhov said, it was only after her parents had died and she had married that Anna Vorovna put the ashtray on display, but she never placed it anywhere that it might be used.  And that, he concluded, remained the case to this day.

We were mesmerized and enchanted by this story.  Even Korolenko grew pale as Chekhov’s voice softly faded in conclusion, lightly brushing his final words onto the delicate canvas of the parlor’s lamp lit air.

Anna Vorovna frankly wept, large tears sliding down her cheeks toward her puckered lips and wrinkled chin.

“It’s true, then?” Korolenko finally asked her, hoping to have done with Chekhov’s triumph.

“No,” Anna Vorovna replied, “but what a life I might have led if it were.”

 

Robert Earle is the author of Nights in the Pink Motel (memoir) and The Way Home (novel). His short stories have been published in Mississippi Review, Iron Horse Literary Review, Pangolin Papers, The MacGuffin, Black and White, Quarterly West, Potomac Review, Hurricane Review, Nassau Lit, Consequence, Louisville Review, Larcom Review, Chiron Review, and elsewhere.   He was contributing editor of Identities in North America: Search for Community, a collection of essays about continental interdependence. As a diplomat, he lived in Bolivia, Ecuador, Mexico, Spain, Germany and Iraq. He now lives in Arlington, Virginia, and can be reached at Raponikon@mac.com